Photo and story by Chet Piotrowski Jr.
Mattoon’s Bella Smith is taking her positive, uplifting personality to Millikin in the fall. The senior setter committed to playing volleyball at the Division III school Tuesday afternoon during a celebration at MHS surrounded by family and friends.
“I think I’ve always wanted to continue playing volleyball,” Smith said. “I’ve just been so caught up with club and everything. I’ve been kind of busy. Committing to something so big is a hard decision. But Millikin is such a perfect fit for me.”
Smith, who led Mattoon High volleyball with 41 aces and 359 assists this past season en route to the team’s first IHSA Regional championship in four years, chose Millikin because of its proximity to home as well for the Big Blue’s head coach, Debbie Kiick.
“It’s close to home but still far away that I can be on my own starting my own things,” she said. “ I love the coach. She works with the players not only with volleyball but connects with them on a personal level. She makes sure she develops their personality, on and off the court. She connects with her players really well. I met some of the players already. We went out for coffee and they’re super nice. They love the coach. Everything is perfect.”
Smith said she can have an immediate impact by connecting with the players and building a relationship.
“I’m really good at connecting with people on the spot,” she said. “Immediately, just being a friend on the team. As the years go on, leading the team together on the same page.”
Smith believes building chemistry with her teammates is crucial.
“Having that trust in your teammates and doing their role,” Smith said. “Building that chemistry on and off the court gains that trust in everybody and allows everyone to work together on the court. It’s definitely hard work. But doing it with the people you love just make it 100 times better. Winning is icing on the cake!”
Smith hopes her legacy is one of having fun while working hard.
“I think mostly just keep working even if you feel you aren’t the best one on the court,” she said. “Playing volleyball is something you should have fun doing. That’s the most important thing.”
Smith, a six-year veteran of Rapid Fire Volleyball club, is going to be missed, coach Brittany Tavenner said.
“Bella’s such a little ray of sunshine,” she said. “She’s not super loud. She has some pretty strong personalities on her team, but she’s one that is pretty calm and comes in and does her job. She’s happy and only brings positivity to the court. We’re going to miss her. It’s going to be weird to not have her. She’s been with us for six years. It’s been super fun to watch her develop. Between her sophomore and junior year, she really decided to put the extra time in and that’s when everything blew up for her and this girl can go places.”
“Bella is awesome,” she said. “She’s worked so hard. She’s put hours, and hours, and hours of training into our gym. She can run an offense and lead the court really well. She has an amazing serve. We’re going to be sad to miss her, but we know she’s going to make an impact. Her team that she’s playing with, nine of the ten are committed. They’re pretty hardcore. They’ve put in the extra time. All the way from 14s to 18s, they’ve constantly asked for extra work.”
Tavenner said the club began taking them to higher profile tournaments their 16s year to get them experience against more competitive teams.
“Her 16s year, we started taking them to bigger tournaments to get them film against really big teams, and I think that sometimes will make the difference to see them play at a more competitive level versus than just what they see out of high school,” she said. “I do think playing club shows commitment and shows dedication to the sport, and that you’re willing to put in the extra time.”
Mattoon varsity head coach Kayla Quick says Millikin will benefit from Bella’s leadership.
“Bella is a leader,” Quick said. “She’s always had one of the softest hearts. That’s what made our team really what it needed to be. She showed up every day with a positive attitude and that bled into the other girls. If some of the other girls were having a rough go of things or not their best game, I could always count on Bella to pop in and say “We got it, it’s all right!” She was always picking people up. Her positive energy and just that mindset she has is going to make Millikin an overall better program.”
Quick couldn’t have been more happy for Smith.
“I am excited for her to learn from the girls that have been playing(there),” she said. “I think that it’s a four-year university, she’s going to transition to a group of girls that have been playing this for a long time at the collegiate level for three, four years. Im looking forward to Bella to learn a lot and develop. I think she’s got some great skill that she can really hone that magic that she had on our court and turn into something great for them.”
Quick said she hopes the girls in the program have seen Bella’s hard work. “This is what hard work can get you.”
“If we can continue Bella’s positive attitude and let that positivity radiate through our program, I think that is one of the greatest legacies Bella could leave behind.”